With the 2017 legislative session winding down, Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson is pushing passage of legislation (House bill 1725) that would place state agriculture sector agencies under greater control of the Arkansas Department of Agriculture. That department, critics of the reorganization point out, is run by an appointee of the governor.
On Wednesday (March 15), the bill passed out of the House State Agencies and Governmental Affairs Committee on a voice vote. It now heads to the House floor.
In recent weeks, a coalition of groups representing a wide cross-section of agriculture concerns in the state has sprung up strongly opposed to the move.
Under a “Type 4 transfer”, the Arkansas Plant Board, Arkansas Aquaculture Division, the Arkansas Forestry Commission, the Livestock and Poultry Commission, the Arkansas Farm Mediation Office, the Veterinary Medical Examining Board and the state Board of Registration for Foresters would be affected. After an efficiency review, proponents of the plan say consolidating the separate agencies’ HR, finance and IT offices could save some $600,000 annually.
“This Type 4 transfer would take the budget, personnel hiring, human resources and equipment from various state ag agencies and place them under the Secretary of Agriculture,” says Don Johnson, executive director of Arkansas Crop Protection Association. “That, in my opinion, would severely diminish the authority of the state Plant Board director. Besides that, the directors of these agencies should be able to hire whoever they think would best fit open jobs. They don’t need to spend time convincing someone above them why someone is the best candidate for a job.
“This really starting concerning me in the last couple of weeks.” The week of March 6, “Our group, the Arkansas Plant and Food Association (fertilizer), the Arkansas Agricultural Consultants Association, and Certified Crop Advisors were going to meet in Carlisle. Other groups – including aerial applicators and seed dealers – got wind of it and wanted in, as well. So many showed up, in fact, we had to move from the original place we planned to meet.
“Everyone is worried about this because it would change the structure of the Plant Board more than we want to see. We all voted to express our concerns and all the individual organizations will go to their boards and determine if they support or oppose the governor’s plan. Everyone at the meeting opposed HB 1725.”
In addition to the groups listed above, “Arkansas Farm Bureau is against the bill as well as most ag groups in the state. We’ve been contacting lawmakers with our concerns, writing letters.”
Ronnie Helms, a prominent consultant and researcher in Arkansas rice country, has been dealing with the Plant Board since 1984. “First, I’m not saying anything that everyone else isn’t. You’ll hear the same message all over – people are really upset about this.
“Second, agriculture is biggest employer in the state and we’ve got something good with the Plant Board. They’re a well-oiled machine, well-respected with quality people. The way agriculture is regulated in this state is the envy of many others. You know, consistency is a large part of the success of the board. Changing that risks all that’s been accomplished and learned over the last 100 years. Change isn’t always good -- why fix something that isn’t broken?
“Over the years, I’ve not always agreed with Plant Board rulings. But I have always respected those rulings. One of the reasons for that respect is because the board is autonomous and made up of a diverse group of ag interests. It may be for the good of the state in the end, but everyone is looking out for the niche they represent. That’s important for reaching decisions – a consensus from a wide focus -- and politics don’t need to enter into it.”
In 2005, the Arkansas Department of Agriculture was established. At the time, Wendell Stratton – who heads Stratton Seed in Stuttgart, Ark. – was opposed to the department’s genesis for the same underlying reason he’s now opposed to HB 1725: government consolidation of power. “I tell you, 15 years ago, this would have gotten nowhere. We’ve evolved to where more politically-minded people represent a lot of ag in the state. We don’t have the old guard protecting ag like we used to. I blame term limits for a piece of that.
“The strength of the Arkansas Plant Board has always been the lack of politics, the lack of governors stacking committees with ‘yes’ men, the fact that committees are full of folks who know their industries inside and out and bring that to the table. It’s disheartening that’s being eroded. Under this plan, the Plant Board is going to be watered down and the governor will have more control. That’s just what it all boils down to.”
In 2005, during the run-up to the formation of the Department of Agriculture, Stratton spoke with Dick Bell – the former head of Riceland Foods and first agriculture secretary in the state – and was “assured the Secretary of Agriculture would chiefly serve to market and promote Arkansas agriculture. That was it. Now, you see what that’s evolved into.”
The Plant Board has been “basically autonomous for, literally, 100 years,” says Johnson, a former University of Arkansas entomologist. “The directors of the board serve directly under the governor and that’s always been very good because they can go to him with issues without interference. Think about how, years ago, the state handled the gypsy moth outbreak and then the boll weevil eradication. Do we really want another layer of bureaucracy if we have to deal with such things? Do we need more red tape? It’s very important for the Plant Board to be independent.
“If this plan is voted in, the Plant Board would have to go through the Secretary of Ag before the governor. What happened to ‘less government, not more’?”
Johnson has “worked with regulatory agencies in both South Carolina and Arkansas. It’s necessary to have those be autonomous. You want science to be the reason for decisions – not politics. And the way this is being structured means the Plant Board would be further under the control of the Secretary of Ag, who’s appointed by the governor.”
Proponents of the reorganization say funds now controlled by the individual state ag agencies won’t be affected. One facet of their argument is the state attorney general has offered an opinion saying the funds can’t be touched.
That is cold comfort, says Johnson. “If this Type 4 transfer happens, you have to worry about another AG coming down with a different opinion. (Current Agriculture Secretary) Wes Ward is a smart man, well-intended, and may be serious about maintaining those funds. He’s said those will be kept where they’re currently at and I take him at his word. But that doesn’t change the fact the AG opinion could change or state law could be changed.”
Stratton hit the funding issue hard during his committee testimony on March 15. “Governor Hutchinson has overstepped his authority under law in the Department of Agriculture and needs this bill to cover what he has done. HB1725 gives them that authority and more as the state will then not only control all functions of the Plant Board but have jurisdiction of its surplus funds that are needed when an emergency situation arises.
“Industry has provided these surplus funds and it is dead wrong for the state to take these funds. We are told amendments are coming that stipulate the funds will be left alone, but I have as much faith in that as I did in 2005 when they told us that the Department of Ag would not affect Plant Board operations.”
Regarding the promised annual savings of $600,000, Stratton proposed an idea. “The initial budget for the (Department of Agriculture) in 2005 was $300,000. Wes Ward told me in January that his current budget is between $1.9 million and $2 million. Instead of scraping to come up with $600,000 in savings by consolidation and totally disrupting our regulatory agency, why not cut the Department of Ag budget back to the $300,000 initial budget and leave the Plant Board alone. I believe that is a saving of $1.7 million.”